It took a while, but Facebook finally succumbed to the hashtag in June 2013. Now this humble little symbol can connect conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Google+ and Pinterest.
Its impact on modern culture — even on our language — is so large that the American Dialect Society declared “hashtag” as Word of the Year in 2012.
But try explaining hashtags to someone who has never used them — it isn’t as easy as you might think. So welcome, class, to #Hashtagology 101. Settle down and open your textbooks. Please stop talking in the back — after all, that’s what the hashtag is for.
A hashtag history
In 2007, Twitter was a fast-moving stream of disconnected 140-character comments. It was possible for anyone to search Twitter for keywords, but whereas many tweets may contain the same keyword, not every tweet was about that keyword.
Some users brought order to this chaos by adopting a system from Internet Relay Chat networks — the hashtag. This began merely as a way for users to label tweets with a particular theme, group or topic.
In 2009, Twitter updated its system to make hashtags clickable, returning a search for all tweets containing the term. What started as an informal work-around among users became an integral part of the platform.
However, the hashtag has evolved into far more than a labeling system.
The hashtag and language
When someone tags a tweet as #FirstWorldProblems, is she making it easy for you to find all the whining, post-modern middle classers in one click? Or is she using the hashtag as a self-referential comment on her own tweet?
Ending a tweet with #FTW (“for the win”) is far more about adding a shorthand punch to the air than it is about grouping celebratory tweets into a single conversation.
And people intentionally create new hashtags every day that make no sense beyond that one specific update. These are not mistakes. People are using hashtags to add extra layers of meaning to their messages.
A hashtag can convey irony or sarcasm, suggest emotion or mood, pose an answer to an implied or rhetorical question, or even directly contradict the actual tweet. The effect can be humorous, provocative, informative, or mysterious. And it can do some or all of these simultaneously.
Just think about that for a moment. A new form of punctuation has joined our language, the use of which can enhance or transform the meaning of a sentence. That’s pretty mind-blowing.
The hashtag packs so much extra information and implied meaning into so few characters that it’s easy to see how it could only have risen to prominence on Twitter.
Social media word games are a great example of this multi-layered meaning. For example, #OneLetterMissingTV serves not only to label the conversation for people to follow, but provides the instructions for the game: Suggest a TV show that would be quite different if just one letter were missing. (My favorite is “Tar Trek: The ongoing adventures of a group of council roadmen” from @LeeAHarris.)
No wonder some people can be confused by the various nuances of this linguistic marvel. However, if your marketing involves social media content, you need to be fluent in the language. Misinterpreting a message or using hashtags incorrectly can make your brand seem as out of place as your uncle’s inappropriate dancing at a wedding.
When hashtags go bad
Just like domain names, hashtags suffer from the same problems that arise when any sequence of words is run together without spaces.
Margaret Thatcher’s death in April 2013 provoked a huge amount of online discussion. She was a highly controversial and polarizing figure in British politics, so it wasn’t surprising for one of the most popular hashtags to become a trending topic:
If you live in the United States and read that sequence of letters, Margaret Thatcher may not pop into your head. You certainly wouldn’t be alone if you thought it actually read “#Now That Cher’s Dead.”
Confusion for many fans, and I’m sure a pretty weird day for the superstar singer.
Choosing the right hashtag is crucial if you don’t want to lose control of the message or, worse, invite ridicule.
Someone in British singer Susan Boyle’s PR agency obviously thought a hashtag promoting her new album launch would be a good idea, and #SusanAlbumParty would seem to make sense.
That is, until the lewd bum jokes started under the hashtag #susanalbumparty.
Always run your hashtag ideas past fresh eyes to spot these traps.
Marketers and hashtags
Hashtags present a fantastic opportunity for content marketers to identify social media conversations relevant to their business and get their content in front of the right people.
Always check the hashtag first to see how much activity it receives, the sorts of content people share, and how well (or otherwise) such content is received. Not every conversation is welcoming to marketers. Is brand content shared or ignored? Or criticized? It’s advisable to only use a couple of hashtags in a post, so choose wisely.
However, resist the temptation to intrude too heavily on any conversation. It’s no more appropriate to spam hashtag followers with offers or self-serving content than it is anywhere else. Interaction still matters, so don’t post and run either. Posting to a single group too often or repetitively can turn a community against you, so it’s best to avoid using hashtags with bots and automated systems.
Hashtags are also the glue that holds many cross-platform competitions and campaigns together, making it easy for followers to submit content to be aggregated and displayed elsewhere, as discussed in my previous post.
However, always remember that the hashtag belongs to the community, even if you created it yourself. You can’t censor or control how others will use it, so be sensitive to situations that could fuel a hashtag backlash.
Qantas discovered this in 2011 when it launched a social media competition with the hashtag #QantasLuxury in the middle of a controversial union dispute. At its height, 51 tweets per minute were sent containing the hashtag. The vast majority ridiculed or criticized the airline, creating a highly visible and wide-reaching PR disaster.
Used well, hashtags can be immensely powerful marketing tools. But as the wise uncle of Peter Parker once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Like any tool, we should treat them with respect, care, and plenty of consideration. Above all, the power of the hashtag should never be underestimated. This once rarely used character on the keyboard is rapidly becoming one of the mightiest punctuation marks in history.
Find more best practices and rules of engagement for working with today’s top social media platforms. Read our Content Marketer’s Guide to Social Media Survival: 50+ Tips.